A View from the West: The Experimental Tradition



Dean Suzuki
Photo by Ryan Suzuki

It may appear that the West Coast is cowering in the shadow of Manhattan and the East Coast when it comes to new music, but might also argue that perception and reality are two very different things in this matter. It is easy to forget or ignore the long standing tradition of experimentalism in the West. Visionary composers such as Henry Cowell, John Cage, Harry Partch, Lou Harrison, Terry Riley, La Monte Young, Steve Reich, Pauline Oliveros, Robert Ashley, Harold Budd, Daniel Lentz, and a host of others have spent crucial, often formative years in the West.

There are important educational institutions with proud histories in the West. Cage invented the prepared piano while working at the Cornish Institute in Seattle. It was also there that he met Merce Cunningham and sowed the seeds of a lifetime relationship with the father of modern dance. In more recent years, composer Paul Dresher taught at the Cornish Institute.

Mills College (which eventually became the home of the San Francisco Tape Center, renamed the Center for Contemporary Music) in Oakland has been the home of Harrison, Ashley, Riley, Anthony Braxton, the Kronos Quartet, Pandit Pran Nath, and “Blue” Gene Tyranny, not to mention Darius Milhaud and Dave Brubeck. Their experimentalist tradition remains strong with composers Pauline Oliveros and Alvin Curran occupying an endowed chair in composition during alternating semesters. Also on the faculty is the British guitarist, composer and improviser, Fred Frith, among others.

At the California Institute for the Arts, students of Morton Subotnick, James Tenney, and Budd, include Ingram Marshall, Peter Garland, Carl Stone, and Chas Smith, many of whom were affiliated with the Cold Blue record label from Los Angeles which was just revived featuring works by Smith, Michael Byron and label owner Jim Fox.

While these institutions, as well as a few others: Evergreen College, even UC San Diego, are part of the academic system, they have encouraged new ideas and perspectives, and continue to do so to this day. Rather than clinging to tradition, established methods of music making and time worn aesthetics, these more progressive schools function as facilitators and conduits for new modes of expression, a re-evaluation of the nature and purpose of music which helps keep music dynamic and vital. I recall once reading a paper on the aesthetics of Minimal music at a conference in which a composition professor from one of the more staid universities asked where the craft was in such seemingly simple and reductive music. Before I could answer, Alvin Curran of Mills retorted, “Think of the artistry it takes to make music out of a handful of notes in such a reductive style” or words to that effect. Assembling notes or making music? Curran was right.

It is not merely coincidental that Cage met Cunningham at Cornish or that Mills had Pandit Pran Nath on their faculty. The most vital moments in the evolution of music of the twentieth century took place in a larger artistic context and milieu which encouraged, even demanded inter-disciplinary dialogue. Note Schoenberg’s relationship with Kandinsky and Die Blaue Reiter, Satie’s with Picasso, Picabia and Cocteau, Cage’s with Cunningham, Duchamp, Rauschenberg, Buckminster Fuller, Daisetz Suzuki, or Glass’s and Reich’s with Stella, Judd, LeWitt, Serra and Snow. Such dialogue is a virtual imperative for a healthy arts community and institutions such as Cal. Arts and Evergreen.

Two of the most visionary experimental music journals, Soundings and Source were based in the West. The legendary Source, spiral bound and oversized, featured essays, scores, recordings and elaborate graphics featuring composers at the vanguard. Each edition was a virtual work of art, a cornucopia of music and ideas. One could find a score comprised of transparencies by Cage, a replica of a score shot full of holes with an automatic rifle by Dick Higgins, or recordings by Alvin Lucier or Robert Ashley. Though short-lived, it was glorious and a wonder to behold. While not as elaborate, Peter Garland’s Sounding Press issued a series of journals focusing on West Coast and other American composers. A kind of Diaghilev of the publishing world, Garland was an early champion of music by mavericks and iconoclasts such as Harry Partch and Conlon Nancarrow, publishing their scores, and writing and compiling essays about their work and aesthetic. Others whose works and ideas appeared in issues of Soundings include Edgard Varèse, Dane Rudhyar, Joan LaBarbara, Paul Bowles, Harrison, Cowell, Charles Amirkhanian, Stephen Scott, Daniel Goode, and Lentz, as well as Silvestre Revueltas, Gavin Bryars, and Kevin Volans, among dozens of other equally notable and individualistic composers. In addition, Soundings Press published books devoted to single composers or subjects, including Lou Harrison, Paul Bowles, California Indian music and a magnificent series of scores by and essays about Conlon Nancarrow.

Journals such as Source and Soundings supported the composers, exposed their work and continue to inform and inspire generations of composers and other musicians. While these journals and institutions are important in and of themselves, they are also emblematic of the vibrancy and vision of music from the West.

As we shall see in the next column, the new music tradition in the West remains healthy and strong.